In his spare time, Romanian FM teaches Judaism

By Amiram Barkat

Haaretz

Tamuz 5, 5765

Israel should invest in us now, and when we join the European Union - we'll repay you, Romanian Foreign Minister Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu suggested in an interview with Haaretz during his visit to Jerusalem last week.

Ungureanu believes that granting Romania a meaningful role in the Middle East peace process would serve his country's and Israel's interests.

"It's a sort of a mutual investment," he explained. "Israel invests political trust and political meaning into a country that is likely to become a member of the European Union by January 2007, and Romania in return invests politically (vis-a-vis its European counterparts), in better knowledge about the region by means of its bilateral relations with Jerusalem."

The foreign minister also thinks expertise acquired from Israel would benefit Romania in its relations with the EU.

Ungureanu returned home Wednesday after a four-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. His overtures were received with restrained sympathy. There were positive things, "but it's still early to say anything further," sources said.

But beyond the foreign minister's proposals, his Israeli hosts were mostly impressed by Ungureanu himself. At 37, the young minister has already managed to pursue an impressive academic career in Judaic studies, although he is not Jewish. He teaches in the Jewish studies department of the University of Bucharest, and this past year established a Jewish studies center at Iasi University - while serving as foreign minister.

Ungureanu's visit left a deep impression on Israelis who met him, from Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to even the Israeli bodyguard he was assigned. "We formed a very strong personal bond," Olmert said. "He's a nice man, intelligent and a great friend of Israel. In my view he is part of a new generation emerging in Eastern Europe, completely different from the old generation of leaders."

Ungureanu's hosts were particularly surprised by his work in Jewish studies, an interest he says is not personal, but purely academic. In private talks with Israelis, Ungureanu said he knows Jewish studies are not considered "very sexy," but he has found the field to be a scholarly paradise. He wrote his master's thesis in 1993 on post-Talmudic texts, at St. Cross College, Oxford, and completed his doctoral dissertation on 19th-century conversions in 2004, partly thanks to grants from Hebrew University's Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, which he thanked in a lecture he gave during his visit here.

On Monday, Ungureanu visited Yeshivat Hakotel in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, in an effort to meet Rabbi Mordechai Elon, whose books he had read. The head of the yeshiva was initially taken aback by the unconventional visit, but hosted Ungureanu for an hour and invited him to return as a private citizen.

Elon, a prominent spiritual leader of religious Zionism, is also a vehement opponent of the disengagement plan. Ungureanu, a staunch advocate of the plan, asked the rabbi to explain his objections, although he said the visit went beyond politics.

"I went to the yeshiva also because it is a shrine of thought that is a house of study," the minister said. "It is more then a simple gesture - it is paying respect to those who consume their days interpreting the words of God. I was deeply impressed."

Aside from meetings with officials, Ungureanu visited Yad Vashem, where he described the steps Romania has taken over the past 18 months to promote commemoration of the Holocaust, and lamented that they had been so late in coming.